David Burke on Writers in Paris

Not long ago, during the Paris in July event, I did a post ( you can find it here) on David Burke’s fantastic book Writers in Paris. Today, when I checked my e-mails, I was really thrilled to find that he wrote me a messge saying that he liked my post. It’s so lovely when this happens and in this case it is even more so because the book is special to me.

David was kind enough to send me a video his wife has shot which is a nice companion piece to his book. It’s a wonderful short film, inspired by Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris,  that will take you on a trip to Paris following some of the greatest writers that have been living there.

It’s worth watching. If you like you can find it here.

Writers in Paris – Literary Lives in the City of Light by David Burke (2008)

No city has attracted so much literary talent, launched so many illustrious careers, or produced such a wealth of enduring literature as Paris. From the 15th century through the 20th, poets, novelists, and playwrights, famed for both their work and their lives, were shaped by this enchanting place. From natives such as Molière, Genet, and Anaïs Nin to expats like Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, and Gertrude Stein, author David Burke follows hundreds of writers through Paris’ labyrinthine streets, inviting readers on his grand tour.

Writers in Paris may very well be one of the most enjoyable and interesting books I own, one that you can browse, open at random, read from beginning to end or backwards, it will always be great. I don’t even know where to begin to give you a good impression, it is so full of fantastic details.

Burke organised the book by “regions”, so to speak, “The Literary Left Bank”, “The River and Islands”, “The Literary Right Bank”…

What I like best is that you can either follow the traces of an author, be it a Parisian or an expat, or you can find information on books set in Paris, and read about the places described in novels. Each chapter is divided in sub chapters and Burke will indicate who lived in what street, quote excerpts of letters and diary entries, passages of novels and poems.

In the case of Rainer Maria Rilke, Burke, describes the streets and places where the writer lived

On a first stay in Paris during 1902 and 1903, Rainer Maria Rilke lived in a shabby student room at No. 11 rue Toullier, between rue Soufflot and rue Cujas. The house is still there, neat, cream-colored, with weathered shutters. The Prague-born poet was twenty-six years old when he arrived, unquestionably gifted, but emotionally and artistically immature. To him Paris was a sinister place.

But Burke also explores the streets evoked in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Or he describes, where Rilke found inspiration for one of his most famous poems, The Panther, namely at the Jardin des Plantes.

There are many authors mentioned in the book, some famous like Rilke, Balzac, Sartre, Orwell, Hemingway and others who are less well-known like Lautréamont (One sub chapter is called “Lautréamont and Maldoror on rue Vivienne”). Some writers are named repeatedly because they either moved about Paris quite a lot or because their books are set in different streets, different arrondissements.

One sub chapter is dedicated to “The Noble Houses of the Faubourg Saint-Germain”. In this chapter you can find long paragraphs on Proust’s The Guermantes Way or on Edith Wharton’s stay in Paris. But also Edgar Allan Poe’s detective story is set here.

During two years I had an apartment at the Place de la Contrescarpe where Hemingway had his first home in Paris. He describes that stay in A Moveable Feast. I was curious to see who else had lived there at a certain point in time. It seems that François Villon roamed the premises in the 15th century, Mme Vauquer, one of Balzac’s characters, lives here, James Joyce and Valérie Larbaud had an apartment close by. The side streets of the rue Mouffetard, which leads to the Place de la Contrescarpe, are described in great detail in Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. I found this particularly interesting as Emma’s has recently reviewed it (here is the review) and I hadn’t even known before reading her review that Orwell also stayed in Paris for quite a long time.

The river Seine and the islands also play quite an important role in many a book like in Zola’s L‘Oeuvre.  Here is a scene in which the mad painter drags Christine to the river bank.

There he stopped again, his gaze fixed upon the island riding forever at anchor in the Seine, cradling the heart of Paris through which its blood has pulsed for centuries as its suburbs have gone on spreading themselves over the surrounding plain. His face lit up, as with an inward flame, and his eyes were aglow as, with a broad sweeping gesture, he said, “Look! Look at that!”

Other famous writers who have more than one entry are Colette, Proust, Céline, Victor Hugo, Edgar Allan Poe, George Sand, Anaïs Nin and Arthur Miller.

Writers in Paris also contains quite a lot of black and white photos of writers and places, houses and streets.

Here is the homepage of the book with table of contents, lists of authors and some photos.

This is another contribution to  Book Bath‘s and Thyme for Tea‘s event Paris in July.